Prisoners of the Ghostland Review
Production Company: ELEVEN ARTS Studios and XYZ Films
Streaming Service: N/A (In Theaters)
Release Date: September 17, 2021
Prisoners of the Ghostland delivers on exactly what it promises: an insane Nic Cage action vehicle directed by subversive Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono, complete with rich stylization, staggering narrative decisions, and a hell of a lot of fun.
The plot synopsis is as follows. A notorious criminal named Hero (Nicolas Cage) is imprisoned in a post-apocalyptic Japanese/Wild West settlement named Samurai Town. The charismatic governor of the town (Bill Moseley) offers Hero a chance at freedom, if he can safely return the Governor’s daughter, Bernice (Sofia Boutella) from the dangerous wasteland known as the Ghostland. If he fails, explosives placed in Hero’s specialized bodysuit will detonate and kill him.
Sion Sono might not be a household name, but he does have a consistent reputation. Sono’s films are invariably characterized by heavy gore, sexual perversion, surreal visuals, and unfiltered references to so-called “low” culture. The director has maintained this signature exploitative style across genres, and Prisoners of the Ghostland marks his English-language feature debut as he returns to his roots in action comedy. Pairing this chaotic creative force with the equally-chaotic acting chops of Nic Cage is a fit almost too perfect to believe. Cage seems to have found his niche in gonzo horror movies, as evidenced by his recent successes with both Mandy (2018) and Color Out of Space (2020), and Prisoners of the Ghostland is definitely in the same vein. If you liked seeing a neon-lit Nic Cage scream at the camera and blow things up in those movies, then you’ll enjoy it in this movie.
I want to be clear that this film isn’t for everyone. If you’re not already onboard with the concept, you’re probably not going to warm up to it. Prisoners of the Ghostland has no interest in appealing to a wide audience or even forming a cohesive narrative; its priorities lie in style and subversion. To put it a different way: when I bought my ticket to see the movie in theaters, the ticket taker only said “enjoy the ride.” Prisoners of the Ghostland isn’t a film so much as it is a roller coaster.
Like many of Sono’s films, it can feel like more style than substance at times. The plot itself isn’t particularly groundbreaking, but the execution makes it special. Sono is acutely aware that this is the first of his films made for a primarily American audience, and he leans completely into it by saturating the movie with Wild West aesthetics. Prisoners of the Ghostland is essentially Sono taking his swing at both a Western and a Samurai film all at once, with a dash of Mad Max-esque post-apocalyptic junk punk thrown in for good measure. The combination of Western and Japanese elements results in a series of fun and well-choreographed fight scenes mixing both elegant swordplay and rootin-tootin cowboy shootin’. It also makes for an interesting—if on-the-nose—comparison between iconic cultural figures in both countries.
I should mention that this movie is stupid in the best way possible. It disregards subtlety with such confidence and intensity that you have to respect it. It’s like the film equivalent of killing a fly with an elephant gun. The movie completely embraces its flaws and inconsistencies, and doubles-down on every ridiculous idea it introduces. This is how you get scenes like an emotional flashback immediately following Nic Cage’s testicles getting blown up, or a tearful geisha interrupting her own monologue to jump behind the controls of a minigun and start mowing people down. The film is ostensibly a comedy, but there are few actual jokes. Most of the comedy comes from the sheer absurdism of the plot, Nic Cage’s unhinged delivery of lines, and the film’s ability to laugh at itself.
The film is not without its flaws. The movie is littered with scenes that attempt to resonate emotionally and instead fall flat. Character arcs are rushed through and underdeveloped. When the audiences’ senses are not being inundated with blood and guts, it can drag at times. It lacks the thematic consistency of some of Sono’s better films. But Prisoners of the Ghostland is undoubtedly unique, and that’s something you can’t say about enough movies.
All of this is to say that sometimes, what you want out of a film is a moving and nuanced exploration of characters and themes. And sometimes what you want out of a film is Nic Cage in an explosive gimp suit slaughtering samurai. Prisoners of the Ghostland knows exactly what it is, and I’m happy it does.
Final Review: ★★★★☆
Reviewer: John Konrad
Review Date: 10/6/2021